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Claudia Rankine and Racism in America

By Max Vaupen

    Claudia Rankine is a poet and published author born in 1963 in Kingston, Jamaica. After moving to America at a young age, Rankine grew attached to poetry, specifically Emily Dickinson, and decided she wanted to write poetry for a living. She graduated from Williams College and later Columbia University to earn her MFA in poetry. During her professional life, Rankine published a number of books including "Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric" and "Citizen: An American Lyric." Rankine's work has been heavily influenced by her life due to the racial discrimination she has witnessed towards herself and her black peers, and she wishes to bring awareness to this issue of discrimination by using a creative writing style of prose and visual imagery. In her works, Rankine conveys a sense of intense realism by portraying situations in a simplistic, but intelligent way that reflects society and are relatable to all humans. Rankine uses this realism to address the inequality of particular groups as well as note the unfairness of life's circumstances to individuals.

    Rankine's style of writing differs from most poets before her because her writing is much more conversational and casual, almost as if she is directly telling a story to the reader. Rankine also uses first and second person in some of works, which includes the reader in her poems almost as if to put the reader in the shoes of someone who faces racial discrimination on a daily basis. Nothing is sugar-coated in Rankine's poems; she tells the story how it is in real life and makes the point obvious. She doesn't convey any hidden meanings within her work because she wants to make a valid point and direct her readers to reflect upon society's wrongs.

    Rankine's most popular book, "Citizen," reveals the dehumanization of black people in America and shows the many privileges that others get, but black people don't. Rankine uses the second-person "you" instead of using first person so she can make her work seem less personal and more relatable to her black readers, while also putting readers of other races in the perspective of those who face racism on a regular occurrence. Rankine displays an example of using second-person narration in her poems in the beginning of "Citizen:"

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the
black-tarred street being swallowed by speed;
he tells you his dean is making him hire a person
of color when there are so many great writers
out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you
are being tested or retroactively insulted or you
have done something that communicates this is
an okay conversation to be having. (Rankine)

    This poem demonstrates an experience in which a black person, who the speaker is referring to as "you," converses with a white man who uses racism in casual way. Although this person the speaker is referring to is aware of the blatant offensiveness of the man's statement, it seems as though this person is, "assumed to be a willing participant in a conversation premised on her erasure" (Miller). This person wishes to speak up about the man's offensive vernacular, but they simply cannot because fear is holding he/she back. This scenario conveyed in the poems mirrors society in America. Black people in America are silenced because they cannot speak out and defend themselves without either being ignored by the majority of society or being attacked. By using "you," Rankine makes it possible for everyone to get an understanding of what it is like living as a black man or women and not having a voice. Another example of using second- person as a way to communicate inequality is in another section of "Citizen:"

You are you even before you 
grow into understanding you
are not anyone, worthless,
not worth you. (Rankine)
Rankine's excessive amounts of "you's" is meant to establish a sense of identity in the reader and display the fact that the justice system renders one's self-evaluation as "worthless." In fact, the entire book "explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected" (Chiasson).

    Rankine uses personal experience to demonstrate how life is unpredictable and can leave an individual feeling emotionally beaten. Other than race, Rankine discusses topics in her poems that hold the truth about the world and its unforgiving nature. In her other book, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely," Rankine writes

There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one
died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give
birth and returned without the baby. (Rankine)
Rankine's prose style of writing makes the poem seem like a conversation with the reader, which then helps the reader visualize the situation in a very broad sense rather than trying to analyze the text and look for the deeper meaning. Rankine's purpose is to get a message out to her readers, not to make a meaningless paragraph with a plethora of literary devices which convey no meaning. She also "reminds us 'moving on' is not synonymous with 'leaving behind'" (Chiasson) because she still has not forgotten about her sibling that she never met. She uses this example from her life as a means of illustrating an event that showed the erratic nature of the universe.

    Rankine gets in touch with herself and presents the struggle that an individual faces with him or herself. Although most of her work is in second-person, the "you" is meant to symbolize anybody, which includes herself. In her poem, "After David Hammons," Rankine reflects upon herself in the second-person:

You hold everything black. 
You hold this body's lack.
You hold yourself
back until nothing's left
but the dissolving blues of metaphor. (Rankine)
In this poem, the inner workings of someone's mind is being displayed here, although it is apparent that she is referring to herself in this stanza. Rankine's use of anecdotes in her poems fulfills the job of keeping her central points realistic and relatable, and " they are ethical formulations that are too honest and angry to be merely presentations; they’re intended as proofs" (Laird). Rankine's experiences and storytelling abilities reveal that not everyone is accepted in society, even though poetry is "often assumed to be a bastion of acceptance" (Miller).

    Claudia Rankine applies realism and individualism to her works in order to spread awareness of discrimination and inequality among members of different groups in society. Rankine's style of writing has clearly made her stand out from traditional poets because her language is almost casual, but also exhibits intense and serious tones. Her use of second-person especially sets her apart as a poet and is used to create a unity between all of her readers and share a situation in the eyes of a victim of discrimination or emotional damage. Her two books, "Citizen" and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" both pull attention to the racism problem in America. Her work as an American poet has brought more attention to a growing problem in society, and she will continue to fight for equality using her unique literature.

Works Cited

Chiasson, Dan. "Color Codes." The New Yorker, 27 Oct. 2014, p. 73. Literature Resource Center
Laird, Nick. "'A New Way of Writing About Race'" The New York Review of Books. N.p., 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Miller, Isaac Ginsberg. "In the Same Breath: The Racial Politics of The Best American Poetry 2014." The American Poetry Review, Mar.-Apr. 2015, p. 35+. Literature Resource Center, Rankine, Claudia. "After David Hammons." (2013): n. Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.. Print.
Rankine, Claudia. "Some Years There Exists a Wanting to Escape..." Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2014. N. Print
Rankine, Claudia. "There Was a Time..." Don't Let Me Be Lonely. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2004. N.
Rankine, Claudia. "You Are in the Dark, in the Car..." Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2014. N. Print.